Saturday, November 29, 2014

Through An Introvert's Lens: Addams Family Values

It would have been an enormous task to focus on The Addams Family as a whole, as it includes a panel of cartoons first published in 1938, a successful television series (1964-1966), at least one animated series (1973-1975) and two movies, the second of which, Addams Family Values, came out in 1993.  I chose the second movie not only because it's a favorite and because it's easier than focusing on the entire canon, but also because it is one of the rare examples of introversion being celebrated.

The "creepy and kooky" Addams family consists of father Gomez, mother Morticia, Grandmama, Uncle Fester, Cousin Itt, Lurch the butler, Thing, and Pugsley and Wednesday.  The Addams family embraces every force that society has taught us to fear: darkness, werewolves, witches, blood, and death.  Moreover, they do so in an undeniably cheerful way, especially Gomez.  They would make wonderful friends if not for the constant fear that they could be plotting your demise.

Introversion and dark, morbid interests have often been intertwined, with the assumption that if you have one, you must have the other.  Yet that is not necessarily the case.  Many introverts aren't the slightest bit into dark subject matter, while many people who are may not be introverted.  For example, the television and movie versions of Gomez portray him as chatty and outgoing.  In The Munsters, a similarly Halloween-themed show, Herman and Lily's family don't contain any traits linked to introversion.

But Wednesday Addams of the Addams Family movies?  Oh, she's introverted.  And gladly so.

I can't think of a character who celebrates introversion better than she, and her best vehicle is Addams Family Values.  In this movie sequel, Gomez and Morticia have a third child named Pubert who looks like a miniature Gomez.  Wednesday and Pugsley are instantly jealous and make numerous (humorous) attempts to kill Pubert, prompting their parents to hire a Debbie, a nanny who is a gold-digging murderer in disguise.  She sets about wooing and eventually marrying Uncle Fester.  Wednesday and Pugsley are suspicious, so Debbie tricks their parents into sending them off to an aggressively WASPy summer camp.  It is the subplot about the camp, especially the magnificent final scene, that is best remembered.

Is She An Introvert?  Duh.

Wednesday likes to be alone.  She doesn't usually speak unless spoken to, and when she does speak, her pithy statements make Daria seem verbose by comparison.  In her mind, there are much more important things than small talk... like world domination.

In most movies, the Wednesday character would be relegated to a sidekick role at best.  Most likely, she would be the quirky Weird Girl brought out now and then to say quirky Weird Girl things for color.  Here, while she's not the sole main character, she does have an active role.

Once Wednesday and Pugsley reach the summer camp, they (especially Wednesday) are under constant pressure to conform to its bright, cheerful, blonde social values.  These values are especially pushed by Amanda, a smug camper, and the unctuous counselors, Gary and Becky.  In a series of scenes, Wednesday pushes right back, such as in this case:

In her "quest," Wednesday is aided by another camp outcast, Joel Glicker.  While we don't see enough of Joel to get a deep view of his character, his traits suggest that he is an introvert or at least leans that way.  Like Wednesday, his desire to opt out of camp activities is discouraged and eventually punished.

After Wednesday declines to be Pocahontas in Gary's Thanksgiving musical production, Gary and Becky's tactics turn from passive-aggressive "encouragement" to torture.  They lock Wednesday, Pugsley, and Joel in a cabin with what could only be the worst hell on earth for them: hours of nonstop cheerful, mainstream fare, from Disney to Annie.  They try to withstand the torture and hold true to their beliefs, but in the end, it at least appears that Wednesday has been broken.

So Wednesday, Pugsley, and Joel are forced to conform to the wishes of more vapid, extroverted characters.  As we will see, Wednesday has an effective plan for thwarting these wishes, but I'll save that for a moment.  First, I should point out that Addams Family Values seems less intent on defending introversion than on defending difference in general.  These differences include weight, race, and ethnicity.  The movie's less-than-subtle message is that there is nothing wrong with these differences, while there is everything wrong with a mainstream culture that attempts to stamp them out or pretend that they don't exist.

This message isn't merely pushed in the camp plot line, but also in the Debbie-Fester plot line.  After their marriage, Debbie pushes Fester to buy a mansion, and he is miserably marched about in turtleneck sweaters and toupes.  Meanwhile, Gomez and Morticia are barred from visiting him.  Even though Debbie's motivation for isolating Fester (to kill him) is bad enough, we are meant to see that forcing Fester to be something he isn't and can never be, is also wrong.

Fortunately Fester and the Addams family eventually escape Debbie's clutches.  And fortunately, this is what Wednesday and company have to say to Gary's Thanksgiving musical:

Until this point, I've highlighted mainly media that tended to treat introverts like they didn't exist, or attempted to marginalize them.  Movies like Addams Family Values do the opposite, putting them front and center and making them come out on top.  And what was the response?  Did the world cave in?  Did the movie go unwatched?  Hardly.  The movie did make $48 million, significantly less than the $113 million raked in by its predecessor, but that might have had less to do with the story line (which critics compared favorably to the first movie) and more to do with dissatisfaction with the thinly plotted first movie.  In any event, while it wasn't a smash, it was still watched.

The reason I point it out is because too many television or movie producers have acted reluctant to place introverts front and center because "it wouldn't sell" or... reasons.  Yet even though Addams Family Values wasn't a box office hit like the first movie, it still had a lasting legacy in promoting Wednesday Addams as a bad-ass introvert, part of a 90s trend that would include Darlene Conner and Daria.  People still admire her even today, such as in the must-watch YouTube series, Adult Wednesday Addams.  Be loud and proud, Introvert Girl... in your own way, or course.


Number of Introverts: Hard to say, since more of the Addams family seems introverted than not.  At least three.

Is the Introvert Prominent?: Yes.

Is the Introvert Active?: Yes.

How Do Other Characters Treat the Introvert?:  With scorn, contempt, and torture.  For which they are soundly punished... as they should be.

The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.                

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: Jersey Boys

Okay, it was finally available On Demand, so I watched it.  My impression was the same as when I saw the stage musical: Eh.

Though at least Jersey Boys the stage musical had color, an infectious energy, and a lot of songs from the Four Seasons and Frankie Valli catalogue.  At times, it gave hints of attempting to be more serious, but then was like, "Nah!  Time for the next hit number!"  The movie (directed by Clint Eastwood), by contrast, tries to be dramatic and meaningful, but ends up flat.

Plot Synopsis

For large stretches, Jersey Boys seems to think it's Backbeat, the gritty story of an up-and-coming band, only in this case, a band that is far less musically interesting and consequential.  Jersey Boys follows the formation and breakup of the Four Seasons in the 50s and 60s, a band consisting of Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi, Bob Gaudio, and Frankie Valli, aka "the Special One."  Tommy, Nick, and Frankie are blue collar Italian boys living in "Joisey," pulling off crimes that land them in jail for a few months at a time.  In between, they play in a band formed by Tommy.  Tommy recognizes that Frankie is Special, what with his ability to make his voice all weird and girly with his falsetto, and establishes him as lead singer.  Once singer-songwriting prodigy Bob Gaudio joins, the group is complete.  The Four Seasons go on to record hit after hit (as shown in this real life medley of the group), before tensions inevitably tear the band apart.

The Good

Songs and Singing.  At least the movie adaptation of a jukebox musical doesn't ruin the songs on which the musical is based.  Many audience members (even those born well after the Four Seasons broke up) will recognize tunes like "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Walk Like a Man."  To the movie's credit, they are sung live rather than pre-recorded, and it adds some much-needed spontaneity.  And John Lloyd Young, who originated the role of Frankie Valli on Broadway, does have a voice eerily similar to the real Valli's voice.  

It Wasn't As Bad As Rock of Ages.  Really, it wasn't.  Jersey Boys at least meets the threshold of respectability, which is more than I could say of certain other jukebox musicals.  Though Rock of Ages had at least a bit of an interesting angle with hair metal and... nope, never mind, not gonna give it any credit.  It just sucked.

The Bad

Flat Story.  An interesting story could have been formed about the Four Seasons, even if they weren't the most consequential band of the 60s.  For instance, rather than focus on Valli, whose life (as portrayed) is less than compelling, the story could have focused on Bob Gaudio, who recorded his first hit as a teenager ("Short Shorts") and entered the band much, much younger than his bandmates.  (Nick Massi, the oldest, was 15 years older.)  It would have been interesting to portray Gaudio's prior experience with music, followed by his experience living and touring with much older, not necessarily very nice men.

That said, even a band story that follows the usual rise-and-fall cliches could have been worthwhile.  In some respects, Jersey Boys is highly similar to Dreamgirls.  Only in the latter's case, it also has the (somewhat fictionalized) rise of Motown, as well as more energy, color, and emotion.  Jersey Boys does not adopt any unique angle -- not even one about the mob's influence on the music business -- and barely tries to make you care about the band as a whole before it breaks up.
Flat Characters.  Much of what is wrong with the story is due to the lack of decent characterization.  Vincent Piazza is a highlight as DeVito, but he's given so little to work with.  He's just a charismatic dirtbag who eventually fuels the band's demise.  Valli, the central character of the movie, just has affairs and a half-hearted relationship with his teenage daughter (likely only to build empathy for when she dies of a drug overdose).  There is no sense that he wants something more or offers something new, apart from his Angelic voice.  Same goes for the other characters.  In real life, the band had appeared on Ed Sullivan (as the Four Lovers) before Gaudio even joined, so there must have been something driving them.  In the movie, singing is like some hobby they have on the side until Gaudio comes along.  There's no sense of chemistry or shared history with these characters.  They get together because the plot demands it and then they break up.

Flat Setting.  The setting, somber acting style, and color scheme might have been appropriate if this were, say, The Fighter.  Or another Clint Eastwood project like Million Dollar Baby.  Here, it absolutely drags the movie down.  As with Mamma Mia!, the only thing that might have made this movie enjoyable was more color and sparkle, not less.     

Lack of Context.  The 60s was possibly the 20th Century's most revolutionary decade in music, yet you would never know it from this movie.  Beatles who?  Bob Dylan?  Motown?  It might have been interesting to watch the Four Seasons struggle to stay relevant until their breakup in 1966, but only one other band is even mentioned in Jersey Boys, and that is a female singing group, the Angels.  I think there was more cultural context in That Thing You Do.


While the source material was never great, Jersey Boys did itself no favors by toning down the boisterous pop tunes and pretending to be The Godfather.  Instead of being an infectious movie with tunes that you were singing as you left the theatre,* it's a gray, gritty picture about people we have no reason to care for.

* Well, except for the final number, which actually looked and sounded like it came from a musical.

Other Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, RENT, Across the Universe, Rock of Ages, Hairspray

Movie Musicals That Got It Right: Dreamgirls, Les Miserables, Chicago, Mamma

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Novel Update: Milestone Achieved!

Ladies and gentlemen, breaking news!

My novel has finally reached a milestone: 120,000 words.

You can see my efforts documented here.

With the holidays approaching, I'm not sure whether I'll start querying agents now, or wait until the beginning of next year.  I'm leaning toward the latter.

One reason is because in other breaking news..............

I've begun writing the sequel!

Maybe that sounds too soon, but when you've been waiting for over a year to write it, believe me, it's really not.  Oh sweet, sweet new pages, and just in time for National Novel Writing Month, too.

So anyway, just wanted to give you that update.  I will be back with a normal one next time.